Carrageenan is a natural polysaccharide extracted from a type of red seaweed, commonly known as Irish moss (Chondrus crispus). It's been used as a food additive since the 1930s, and is added to various processed foods to improve their texture and thickness. It's added to foods like ice creams, yogurt, pancake syrup, cottage cheese, etc. It also has emulsifying properties, which is why it's added to liquids like non-dairy milk, beer, soft drinks, canned soups, salad dressings, etc. This seaweed extract is also commonly found in infant formulas, toothpastes, dog food, etc. It is also commonly found in organic foods. So, what's all the hype and debate about the dangers associated with this seaweed extract?
NoteSticking to a healthy, well-balanced diet, and avoiding too much of processed foods will help avoid unnecessary consumption of carrageenan.
In June 2001, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) conducted a reevaluation of carrageenan and found it to be safe for human consumption. The 'acceptable daily intake' was 'not specified', deeming it generally safe.
Nevertheless, people are panicking with regards to consumption of carrageenan. This can be attributed to the reports alleging that it can spearhead gastrointestinal inflammation, malignant tumors, and also cause cancer. The whole debate about its safety stemmed from the article published by Dr. Joanne Tobacman, then Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Iowa, in Environmental Health Perspectives in October 2001.
According to her independent review, carrageenan is believed to cause inflammation in the human body, which can further lead to heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, etc. She goes on to state that both the undegraded and degraded versions are harmful to the human body. Moreover, the undegraded version is believed to transform into the degraded version in the stomach, by acid hydrolysis and other chemical reactions, thereby, exposing a carcinogen to the digestive system. In 2007, carrageenan was banned from infant formulas in Europe; however, it continues to be added to infant formulas in the US.
There's a lot of reference about degraded and undegraded versions. What exactly are they? The two forms differ from each other with regards to their molecular weight.
The degraded version has been recognized as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It has been seen to cause ulcerations and neoplasms in rats. Research reveals that the degraded version causes inflammation of the colon, which in turn, results in irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, etc. The carrageenan extract used in food is the undegraded type and is believed to be safe for human consumption.
However, there's a lot of debate on this as well. While many claim that there's a black and white difference between the two forms, others say that the transformation of the undegraded form to the degraded form is inevitable.
"Carrageenan exposure clearly causes inflammation; the amount of carrageenan in food products is sufficient to cause inflammation; and degraded carrageenan and food-grade carrageenan are both harmful." ― Dr. Joanne Tobacman, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago.
However, according to a review conducted by Cohen and Ito in 2006, the undegraded form resists degradation in the digestive tract; thus, it cannot pose harm to the body. In an article published by the Political Director of Organic Consumers Association, Alexis Baden-Mayer, carrageenan will not degrade. As mentioned in the article, "Because carrageenan is extracted from seaweeds under alkaline conditions, degradation to smaller polymerized polysaccharides is avoided. As long as the pH is maintained above 6.0, carrageenan is stable to heat processing. Once carrageenan is in the gel configuration, as is the case for its use in food systems, the carrageenan becomes highly resistant to degradation, even under more acidic conditions, such as occur in the stomach."
Since 2001, Tobacman has published 18 more peer-reviewed studies. Later, in April 2012, Tobacman addressed the National Organic Standards Board regarding carrageenan dangers and its application in organic foods. However, her petitions were responded with a letter of denial.
According to Michael Adams, deputy director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, the petition filed by Tobacman wasn't backed by adequate compelling evidence to reexamine the safety of this seaweed extract. He went on to say, "It has been reviewed repeatedly by FDA scientists and other international organizations, and in the judgment of those experts there hasn't been a problem."
There have been reports of people with ulcerative colitis and other gastrointestinal problems, who've experienced flare-ups after consumption of carrageenan-containing foods. According to Dr. Pradeep Dudeja, Professor of Physiology in Medicine at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who happened to co-author nine studies on the seaweed extract, says that "Carrageenan has a unique chemical structure and research has shown that this chemical structure may trigger an innate immune response in the body. The immune response leads to inflammation, which is a serious public health concern since chronic, low-grade inflammation is a well-known precursor to more serious diseases, including diabetes and cancer."
Scientific studies haven't found conclusive evidence for the same; nevertheless, to be on the safer side, it's better for people with irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive tract problems to stay away from this seaweed extract.
As of today, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that this seaweed extract is unsafe for human consumption. However, as a precautionary measure, you can check the label and avoid foods with this additive. Pick the brands that do not use this additive. Nevertheless, consuming too much processed food is not recommended. Homemade options are always better, so try to limit your consumption of processed foods to be on the safe side.